Virgin Galactic tourism rocket ship reaches edge of space in test flight

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Observers watch Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo take off for a suborbital test flight of the VSS Unity in Mojave, Calif. A more scientific boundary, and the one NASA and the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale) discern for reaching space, is the Karman Line at 62 miles (100 km) above the Earth's surface. On Wednesday, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said that's the standard used by the U.S. Air Force and other U.S. agencies.

The company said its SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, has entered the next stage of testing which will "expand the envelope for altitude, air speed, loads and thermal heating".

Branson greeted the two pilots after the test, declaring "Space is Virgin territory!" It burned for a total of 60 seconds and drove the vehicle directly upward at almost three times the speed of sound.

The test flight foreshadows a new era of civilian space travel that could kick off as soon as 2019, with British billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic battling other billionaire-backed ventures, like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, to be the first to offer suborbital flights to fare-paying tourists.

"Like the early days of aviation, these commercial space flights take grit and innovation - the very attributes it takes to blaze a trail for generations to follow", the FAA said in its announcement. Virgin Galactic completed the first crewed spaceflight from American soil since the final Space Shuttle mission in 2011.

Branson spoke to CBSN from California's Mojave Desert after Virgin Galactic got one step closer to sending tourists to space.

The Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two rocket, which was carried up to a height of above 12,000 metres by a specially-designed plane before igniting its motors, reached 82.7km above the ground which is above the altitude at which space begins according to Nasa.

The space tourism company's feat marks the first successful manned space flight launched on USA soil since NASA retired its space shuttle program in 2011.

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VSS Unity's peak altitude of 51.4 miles is similar to what Virgin Galactic has planned for commercial flights.

More than 600 clients have already paid US$250,000 for a ticket.

The Unity has made three supersonic tests flights during 2018, as well as gliding and ground-based tests to ensure it was functioning correctly.

"Safety's all that matters if you're putting people into space", he said.

"There are a lot of firsts here today but there are also some seconds".

Then, in 2014, SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight by Scaled Composites when the co-pilot prematurely unlocked its unique "feathering" braking system and it began to deploy.

Virgin's latest flight test comes four years after the original SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight that killed the co-pilot and seriously injured the pilot, dealing a major setback to Virgin Galactic, a USA offshoot of the London-based Virgin Group.

Flown by two pilots, Mark Stucky and Nasa astronaut Frederick Sturckow, the aircraft made its rapid ascent as the rocket motor burned for 60 seconds.

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